BOA Editions Limited
Trade paperback, ISBN 1-929918-25-9
102 pages, $13.95
Sam Hamill has followed the tradition of Rexroth in translating Chinese and Japanese poetry, and he may be best known for his translations in Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Here, in Dumb Luck, he celebrates his good fortune as he approaches 60 years of age, the memory of being a 14 year-old vagrant arrested and jailed for homelessness still seared in his brain. As stated by Charles Olson: I had to learn the simplest things last. Which made for difficulty.
His difficulty is our good luck. The influence of Asian poetry is evident in much of this work, in the simple images with complex meanings, and the emotion of a line refined to a subtle point. When he writes of the rational and irrational mind as one, he says:
It is so because leaves are green,
and death is born in greenness . . .
With Hamill s maturity, the proximity of death is near at hand in these poems, but it is not a mourning of loss or future loss, or a sorrow of what has occurred and what will occur. When writing an elegy to a friend who painted the wind, Hamill refuses to mourn the death of one so true. There is humility in this, too:
I sit with ancient
sages, but have learned
very little. The eagle
circling high above
these hills knows much more than I . . .
He quotes the Sung nature poet, Su Tung-p o, for the proposition that great painters painted the spirit, not the form of things, that those who transcend mere form to capture true spirit are very rare, and that the same principle applied to verse. Like Hamill, he professed a simplicity and primitiveness of style, and wrote like water flows it flows when it should and it stops when it should stop. Two perfect examples:
I want to know what
the crow knows, what the lark sings,
the woodpecker s code
I sat and listened
to nothing. And then, somewhere,
an alder leaf fell
The spirit captured here is so generous in nature, so simple in gesture, so bountiful in a few lean lines that the tragedy of 9/11 causes Hamill to say, I ll kiss the sword that kills me if I must.
We become the sum
of all we give away.
Unlike most of us, Hamill in these poems appears to be a man at peace with himself and the world. As he says of his retreat among the cedars of the Northwest coast, it is not an escape from the world s ways, but an entryway, a door opening on the real world.